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The GOP goes gooey

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000

I. Kinder, Gentler, Compassionate

Philadelphia, Wednesday morning -- Something’s wrong with our TV sets. What we‘re seeing is the photographic negative of the actual Republican National Convention. During the convention’s first night, all the speakers were black. All the delegates, however, were white. (Well, 89 percent of them. A whopping 4 percent of the delegates were black.)

The distortion doesn‘t stop there. A whole lot of women are speaking at this convention, though 65 percent of the delegates are male. Nothing so sordid as a direct attack on Bill Clinton has yet been leveled, though the veiled attacks are the convention’s biggest applause lines, and Clinton-loathing fills, as W would put it, every willing heart. No child, the people at the podium assure us, will be left behind, though children are relegated to the fine print in W‘s proposed budget. The boys of Normandy, the barking voice of Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf and the military heroism of Papa Bush -- for that matter, of Papa Dole -- are all displayed to confer on W a suitably martial air and conceal the fact that he, like Dick Cheney, wheedled his way out of Vietnam. Above all, the Republicans are projecting themselves as an inclusive, moderate party, even as their platform snarls at gays and W‘s economic plan declares war against the poor.

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Consider, for instance, the casting of W as the education candidate, who would leave no child behind. Again and again, we’ve heard that W plans a $5 billion program to teach reading to disadvantaged children. Mrs. W, Laura Bush, in what was quite an effective speech, recalled fondly how W had read Hop on Pop to their twin daughters. She told of her own efforts to teach reading, and of her concern that she hadn‘t done as well as she should have.

Not enough attention has been paid to the way in which W’s campaign echoes that of the Old Man. It‘s not just that W has conferred upon himself, in only slightly altered form, the “education president” mantle that his pop claimed. It’s not only that the title is as spurious as the Old Man‘s, since W’s $5 billion plan to teach reading to disadvantaged kids cannot be enlarged because he is also proposing a $180 billion tax cut over five years for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. There‘s a more fundamental resemblance between the two campaigns: Papa George, we should recall, vowed to hew to a conservatism that was “kinder and gentler.” W’s conservatism, by contrast, is “compassionate.” Karl Rove, W‘s strategist, has been widely praised for coming up with a new Republican play book, but the campaign really comes straight out of the Bush Family Haggadah, from which they read the very same story election year after election year. (“We were strangers in Kennebunkport . . . ”)

But W has gone Pop one better. Old George merely vowed to be kinder and gentler to all those other folks (blacks, non-members of Skull and Bones, etc.), while W has had no one but those other folks talking on TV. Only one white male actually addressed the convention on Monday night, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and, well, from one white guy to another, Denny, you didn’t do us proud. I refer to the claim you made for your fellow Republicans in the current congressional session: “We protected Social Security and Medicare for the first time in 40 years!” Actually, Medicare was only enacted (over Republican opposition) in 1965. A knowledge of history and Denny Hastert are practically synonymous.

At the end of its first two nights, the Republican convention is a mix of tolerance voiced and intolerance unvoiced. A raft of speakers from Texas, along with W‘s national-security-adviser-in-waiting Condaleezza Rice, have all affirmed W’s benign attitude to immigrants. (To his credit, W opposed Proposition 187, and besides, the reason there‘s so much poverty in Texas is that those immigrants sure do work cheap.) No one has heard a peep, by contrast, from the Republicans’ religious fundamentalists and gun nuts, though the party‘s platform commits the GOP to oppose abortion and gay rights in all cases, and a New York Times poll of the delegates shows them evenly split on the idea of mandating trigger locks on handguns so that the children not left behind won’t accidentally shoot themselves.

Already in high spirits from their belief that W will clean Al Gore‘s clock, the Republicans seem tickled pink at their own displays of non-bigotry. On Tuesday night, Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay member of the party’s congressional delegation, was actually permitted to make a speech favoring free trade, and the delegates just couldn‘t get over how compassionate they’d become. There were limits to this, of course: Colin Powell‘s call for universal health care for children received just a smattering of applause (after all, the party has killed this idea repeatedly in the House and the Senate), and his impassioned if brief plea for affirmative action met with a stony silence. The moment he moved to the next topic, however, the folks on the convention floor were beaming again. Imagine! We didn’t boo!

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